MLS: a very successful league of their own

Now that soccer in America has got bags of money and bountiful supplies of young talent, can world domination be far behind?

Viral Shah

Topics Politics

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It’s a good time to be involved in soccer in the United States (and before you scoff, the etymology of the word is British, not American).

In July a record 24.3million American viewers watched the World Cup final between Holland and Spain (the previous record was set only two weeks before when USA faced Ghana in the last 16). Then, following the tournament, an array of big-name players arrived on American shores to play for various Major League Soccer (MLS) sides: Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez, Nery Castillo, Alvaro Fernandez, Blaise N’Kufo and even Rooney (John Rooney, the brother of the Manchester United striker, is on trial at Seattle Sounders).

Cynics may point out that this list of big names is another step in the MLS reverting back to the financially reckless behaviour of its predecessor, the North American Soccer League (NASL), which ran from 1968 to 1984 and allowed players such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and George Best to earn large sums in the twilight of their glittering careers for sides such as the Washington Diplomats and the New York Cosmos. But the MLS, formed in 1996, is very unlikely to become a retirement home for Europe’s best footballers due to the requirement for all franchises to have their own youth development initiatives.

The stringent financial rules also make a repeat of the NASL situation unfeasible, with a $2.6million salary cap placed on each of the teams, although clubs are allowed to sign up to three ‘Designated Players’ (DP), whose salary can exceed the team limit. The majority of incoming players are signed centrally to the MLS, before being allocated a club in the division. The exception is that DPs are signed to the clubs themselves, if they have a DP slot available. This is financially prudent because it avoids a New York Cosmos-style spending spree by a single club on several players.

But this rule can lead to vast wage discrepancies in teams. Some younger players earn a measly $15,000 a year due to their reserve status under the salary cap, while big names like LA Galaxy’s David Beckham can earn $6.5million a year. The arrival of seasoned internationals from sides like Barcelona (Marquez and Henry) can only help the status of soccer in the US, both in terms of publicity and as a source of inspiration for younger players.

Youth development is the most important factor in terms of future success for the MLS, with promising youngsters such as Andy Najar and Francisco Navas Cobo doing their bit to shed the image of the MLS as a retirement home for Europe’s best. And it isn’t it simply one-way traffic: there are many Americans successfully plying their trade in Europe (most are US internationals), such as Fulham’s Clint Dempsey and Villareal’s Jozy Altidore. A successful youth development programme could see the MLS export talent regularly to Europe. This in itself could prove to be another source of income.

Given America’s 300million-strong population and high GDP, you’d expect it to be a force in world football sooner rather than later. The idea in the US that soccer is a ‘soft’ sport actually acts in its favour. ‘Soccer moms’ would rather allow their children to participate in a game which is less violent and is cheaper (in terms of equipment) than the country’s most popular sport, American (or tackle) football.

Social trends in the US have made it likely that soccer will boom. Post-1960s, there has been a massive increase in the Hispanic community in America, predominantly through Mexican immigrants. The estimated 43million Hispanics living in the US outnumber the entire population of Spain, home to the European and World Champions. Added to that, as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point out in Soccernomics, more American children under the age of 12 play soccer than baseball, American football and ice hockey combined. There is potential for a massive player pool in the future.

This potential is beginning to bear fruit as the MLS plans expansion to several new cities. The 2010 season saw the Philadelphia Union join the MLS, while the Portland Timbers will be joining in 2011 along with the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Montreal Impact will add to the Canadian presence in 2012 as the nineteenth team in the league. The vast increase in the number of applications to join the MLS reflects on the growing interest in soccer. And it is an interest that the MLS is keen to capitalise on: Montreal paid $40million to join the MLS, compared to the $7.5million two clubs paid back in 2005.

Among the requirements for the growth of soccer in America is the need for soccer-specific stadiums, one of the most important aspects of making a franchise financially viable. This was not the case in 2002, when there was only one soccer-specific stadium in use in the MLS as most were rented from NFL sides. It follows that clubs couldn’t cover operating costs and were generally making losses. Next year, 14 of the 18 sides will have their own stadiums, aiding the progress to profitability – in part funded by local councils stumping up millions of dollars in partnership with franchise owners. That’s in stark contrast to the situation for major European clubs like Liverpool and Valencia, which have been unable to call on public funds.

The healthy financial situation of the clubs is reflected in the formation of a full national league of 16 clubs in 2010. Previously, to cut down on travel costs, there were Eastern and Western conferences, with the top teams meeting in playoffs. Now, fans can watch teams from the east cost like New York Red Bulls take on sides from the west, like LA Galaxy.

The MLS has come a long way. From paying cable channels to broadcast its games, it now finds itself with several multi-million dollar television deals. In only its fourteenth year, the league has increased brand awareness, put in place a substantial infrastructure of stadia and set up youth academies in every one of its clubs. With America’s economic power and soccer potential, the league’s long-term goal of becoming one of the best leagues in the world is looking likelier with every passing day.

It won’t be long before the US is regarded as a more serious contender for the World Cup than England. What will become of the football/soccer snootiness then?

Viral Shah is a freelance football writer and a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy. He currently blogs on LiberoFootball.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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Topics Politics


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